“The phone calls begin immediately.”
Released from a detention center
East J Street in Tacoma, Washington, cuts through an industrial district, past dingy white warehouses and empty lots, and dead-ends at a rail yard. One side of the street consists of broken asphalt and wild grass. On the other sits the Northwest Detention Center, the nation’s fourth-largest immigration prison.
Five days a week, from about 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., the gate buzzes open and disgorges people from all over the world. To keep their shoes from falling off — the laces are removed during incarceration — the migrants have to shuffle as they cross the railroad tracks and step onto East J. Although downtown Tacoma is just a mile away, which way to turn isn’t clear. Walk in the direction of the gravel-filled rail yard? Toward the plastic-fabrication plant down the road? Follow the train tracks?
Not so long ago, with occasional exceptions — prior arrangements made with family or friends living in the United States — the immigrants stood stranded on this nowhere street, uncertain where they were, with no means to contact anyone. In 2015, a creaky, old RV appeared at the curb, the property of the nonprofit Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, or AIDNW. Since then, volunteers from the organization — nearly all retirees in their 60s and 70s — watch the gate every weekday and pour out of the faded blue-and-white mobile home to greet the newly released inmates.
Each migrant has exactly what he or she possessed at the time of arrest. If ICE picked someone up in Houston last August wearing a T-shirt, he now stands on East J Street in the T-shirt, even in the middle of a cold and wet Pacific Northwest spring. His cellphone, if he had it with him, is now dead. It rests in a clear plastic bag along with a wallet that holds little if any cash.
Hours earlier — or, in some cases, a few days earlier — the migrants sat in a prison courtroom where a judge may have released them on bond, with the understanding the migrant would return to court at a later date. Or the judge ruled she could remain, for now, in the U.S. as a legal noncitizen. Or the judge may have granted asylum, deeming her country of origin too dangerous to return to.
In the RV, the migrants find water, sodas, potato chips, granola bars, and charged cellphones to share. On the kitchen counter, they discover a bowl of shoelaces. In the back bedroom, converted into a wardrobe stocked with donated items, they change into clean, weather-appropriate clothing. Nearly everyone accepts a new backpack. They sit transfixed when a volunteer unfolds a map to show them, to their dismay, where they’ve been held the past several months, in this upper corner of the U.S.
When the guards release the inmates in groups — often as many as nine people at a time — the atmosphere in the RV turns hectic. It’s like ER triage. Something traumatic has happened. Agents ripped a guy away from his family. A mother hasn’t seen her children in months. All the focus is on getting these men and women back to where they belong. So the phone calls begin immediately. To a cousin in Miami. A sister in L.A. In Spanish. In Punjabi. In Fula. It grows so loud, no one can make out much. Then one of the volunteers helps arrange the flight out of Sea-Tac or the bus ticket out of town.
In this pandemonium, alliances flourish. Three Cubans, two men and a woman in their 20s, hadn’t met inside the detention center, but in the few hours they spent in the RV, they became close, so much so that the woman, bound for Baltimore, declined an earlier ride to the airport because she wanted to remain with her new friends as long as possible. Sometimes a party breaks out, like when an impromptu fashion show erupted in the bedroom-turned-wardrobe as four women tried on the donated clothing and vamped for one another.
When transportation can’t be sorted out in time — before the volunteers close shop for the evening — AIDNW invites the migrants to its rented four-bedroom house, two and a half miles away on a quiet residential street. They stay the night and catch their plane the next day. Or they remain at the house for weeks. Because sometimes there’s no one to contact. Nowhere to fly.